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Detailed Record


Norman Bethune Collection

Norman Bethune Collection

Physical Description

55 cm of textual records and photographs



Biographical Sketch / Administrative History

Henry Norman Bethune (1890-1939) was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario. Bethune was a medical student at the University of Toronto in 1914 when WWI began and he went to France as a stretcher bearer in1915. Resuming his studies after a shrapnel shell blast wounded his left leg, Bethune graduated with an MB from the University of Toronto in 1916. In 1917, Bethune returned to Europe as a surgeon sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve and later the Royal Navy. In the years after the war, Bethune completed post-graduate studies at West London Hospital and at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Bethune’s grandfather (who was also called Norman) was the founder of Toronto’s third medical school, the Upper Canada School of Medicine, and was a major influence on Bethune as he started out in medicine.

In 1926, Bethune entered a dark period of his life – diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) and estranged from his wife Frances Penney. It was his recovery from TB that inspired his interest in thoracic medicine. After his convalescence at the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York, he moved to Montreal and began working as an assistant to Dr. Edward Archibald of the Royal Victoria Hospital – a leading authority on tuberculosis. Over the next few years, Bethune became famous for his treatment of TB patients at both the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur. From 1928-1936, Bethune perfected his skills in thoracic surgery, and also invented and redesigned more than a dozen surgical instruments including rib shears and a pneumothorax device.

Increasingly disillusioned with the general state of medical practice, Bethune advocated for change in the health care system. In 1936, he volunteered to help the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, where he organized the first mobile blood-transfusion unit. Two years later, Bethune traveled to China where he provided aid to the Chinese communist Red Army by forming the first mobile medical unit. In 1939, while stationed with the Communist Party of China’s Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Bethune injured his finger while operating on a soldier and died of blood poisoning.

Scope and Content

The fonds contains Norman Bethune’s letter correspondences, including numerous letters between him and his former wife Frances Penney. The majority of the fonds consists of material about Bethune: newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, slides and negatives, an original play about his life, a documentary script, various memorabilia (e.g. commemorative stamps, brochures, pamphlets, buttons and pins, posters, fliers), and writings about Bethune’s work in Canada, Spain, and China.

Finding Aids

Partial inventory list is available.

Custodial History

This collection has accumulated from various donations to the Osler Library over many years including accession (acc.) nos. 308, 329, 355, 356, 360, 361, 362, 433, 436, 442/1, 443, 443B (Julie Allan donation), 445, 494, 512, 514, 580, 594, 675, 679, 719, 722, 757, 841, 132, 221, 331, 368, 383, 482, 488, 490, 513, 517, 655, 674, 676, 677, 692, 696, 698, 709, 716, 756, 758, 762, 765, 766, 767, 769, 779; manuscript (ms. & mss.) nos. 442/6, 449, 615, 699, 744, 761. There are also several unaccession (unacc.) items as listed on the box list and inventory.


The documents are mainly in English, with some in Chinese

Source of Supplied Title Proper

Title based on the documents in the collection.

Retrieval Number




Bethune, Norman
Royal Victoria Hospital